Chapter Seventeen – 1 Months Later
Time is like a nonexistent concept in the Underground Mall.
After our talk by the fountain we went to bed but I don't think any of us slept that night. I know Shawn and I didn't. There was too much to think about, too much left to do. Life from that point on was shrouded in mystery. There was no way to know if things were going to end well or if they would end badly. We could die. I don't want that to be the main thought I have when I come to a new place but that's what we have now, doubt. This could be our safe haven or it could be just another hell in a long line of hells.
We didn't sleep. There was too much to consider. The next morning Mayah and Jake left to find more people. They've been gone for a month now and so far no one has arrived. I knew it wasn't going to happen overnight but waiting is the hardest part. There is absolutely no way for us to know if they are still alive. We can't help them if they've been attacked and if they are dead then what do we do then?
In the meantime, we've gotten things ready for when people arrive. Even with all the uncertainty we are still planning for the best case scenario. If people do come then we need to be prepared for them.
The open and empty stores are lined with cots and so is the hallway. The infirmary is set up and so is the 'kitchen'. All we need now is people. In order to not go insane staying underground all the time I find myself spending a lot of time Above. I can understand why Mayah and Jake didn't want to get trapped in Under. There are certain things that you can get used to but I find that days and nights become meaningless when you never see the sun or stars.
That's where I am now. I found a spot I like. Outside of the parking garage the rest of the mall collapsed in such a way that I can pretty easily climb up onto the roof. The part of the roof I've claimed is slanted and the rest is collapsed around it. It's like being on an island all my own. No one else knows about it and I like it that way. I love them all but sometimes I just have to get away. I think we all have our secret places. I don't know where anyone else's is and that's the point. I don't want to know. We are a force to be reckoned with together but there is a certain kind of solace found in being alone. The sun is setting, that's my favorite time of day. I love watching colors take over the sky, like watching a new painting coming to life every evening. No two are ever the same. If you miss one there will be another but you won't have seen the lost one. I don't want to miss any sky-sized murals so I come up here every night.
It's October, now. At least I think it is. I'm no more certain of that than I am of it being a month since they left. I think it is but that doesn't mean I'm right. I gave up trying to keep track a long time ago. There's no real point. All it does it make things harder.
I have this dream sometimes. I wake up and I'm trapped in a tiny room. I'm all alone in the room and there's no way out. The walls are bare except for one which shows a counter. Every time I have this dream the counter is at a new number. I don't know what the counter is counting up to but I know that I've been trapped in the room for the number of days on it. I spend the whole dream locked inside the box, staring at the wall with its counter slowly ticking away toward a mystery. The only thing I know for sure about this dream is that seeing the counter is worse than being trapped in the box without it. Knowing the days are being counted makes staying in the box harder. That's how keeping track of time in this world feels, it does nothing but make it so much harder to get through each day. Living this life is like being trapped inside a box with no way out, the only way to survive that is to keep going forward without seeing your life tick by with no way to stop it or get it back.
I think its October, almost Halloween. I used to love Halloween. I like the thrill of the macabre and the adrenaline of being scared. It had no idea what really being scared was like. If I had known I don't think I would have liked Halloween. I would have hated it. It's fun to watch scary movies and see scary things for one night of the year. When it becomes your entire life, when every waking moment is a nightmare, the thrill wears off pretty quickly.
I shiver on my island, hugging my arms around myself to keep warm. I should have brought a jacket. We have those in the boxes of clothes that were left in Under. Amanda has them set up on racks at the end of our encampment. I think she likes having something to focus on instead of having nothing to do but worry all the time. Luckily, Katie continues to be one of the best babies I've ever seen, not that I've seen very many. I feel tears prickle in my eyes thinking about her. I still feel the grief of losing my own unborn child. I let my hand fall to my back where I was stabbed. It's pretty much completely healed. It still twinges every once in a while but it pales in comparison to how I feel inside knowing it was what caused me to miscarry. Shawn has never once blamed me for it but I still blame myself sometimes. It's impossible not to. I want to have another chance someday to be a mother, to have Shawn be a father. I think we'll be so good at it. I see it every time Shawn looks at me. I see the light in his eyes that shines brighter than everything else. It distracts me from everything, it always has.
I lie back, the air is colder but the slab of cement I'm on was in the sun all day. The warmth cuts through my shirt and soaks into my back. I close my eyes and deepen my breathing. I can hear sounds in the empty city like the ghosts left behind are trying to reclaim their home. The rubble is still settling after all this time. Slabs of cement like the one I'm on shift and fall, small fires still rage on within the corpses of buildings, and smoke clings to the air like permanent scar tissue. Far off in the distance there is a car alarm going off, or maybe a fire alarm, I can't tell for sure. There's something else underneath it all, a hint of music. I listen closer, trying to determine if the music is real or if I'm starting to go crazy. I wouldn't be surprised either way, actually, I'd be more surprised about the music than I would my own insanity. Music has gone extinct now and craziness runs rampant which is just another way in which the world has turned upside down.
A new sound takes over; the footsteps of someone climbing up my tower, unsettling the ruins around me. I sit up; weight resting on my bent elbows, and watch as Shawn climbs onto my slab of concrete. He's never been here before. He has his own secret place that I've never been before. As much as we love each other it's nice to have our own space. I'm glad to see him, though. The music was unsettling in its uncertainty of whether or not it actually existed. Shawn rests his hands on his knees when he gets to the top and watches silently as the sun continues its track toward the mountains.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" I say. He turns around and makes his way to my side. He lets his bodyweight fall gently onto the slab and lies down.
"I can see why you come up here," he says. He reaches out and takes my hand. I lie back down and close my eyes, feeling the new warmth he brings. It's amazing how much comfort and safety he brings simply in his presence alone. I do believe that people have something wrapped around them always, like an extension of their soul, and if you're close to someone you can feel it. That's why we feel uncomfortable around some people and feel safe in the company of strangers. People wear their hearts like a blanket wrapped around them. Shawn is so full of love and warmth that when I'm near him that's all I feel, too.
"Where do you go?" I ask.
"There's a place next door that hasn't been completely destroyed yet. There's a fire escape that leads up to a balcony of a person who collected flags from around the world. They're small, the size of a place mat, but they've hung them all around their balcony. For some reason, even though everything else is destroyed, those flags are still there."
"It sounds nice," I say and he nods. We watch the sky as a small, puffy cloud drifts by. The wind shifts through the rubble and makes me shiver against the cold. We'll have to go inside in a few minutes but I let myself enjoy the last few moments of tonight's portrait. After all, I'm never going to see this one again.
"I have a feeling people are going to arrive soon." Shawn says and I smile. I want that to be true. It just feels like a lot of waiting for nothing right now. It feels like we should be doing something, anything, but we're frozen in time.
"I hope so." I say. "Where do you think those trucks went?"
"The ones that we hid behind the wall from?" He asks.
"Yeah," I say. "We haven't seen them since. I wonder where they went."
"I mean, they have to be here somewhere, right? Otherwise why did they come in here in the first place?"
"Exactly," I say, sitting up and crossing my legs in front of me. "I almost wonder if it would be better to try to find them. We might be able to help each other."
"Maybe," Shawn says, lifting his body so he's resting on his arms. "Or once they find out about us they could try to take over. Isn't the whole reason we came here because we haven't been able to trust anyone else since this all began? We've barely given this place a chance yet."
"I know," I say. "I'm trying to be patient but it's hard. I feel like we should be doing something more. It's hard sitting around waiting. What do we do if no one comes here? We don't have another plan. We've gone off of blind trust that where we're going is the right thing to do for so long but what if this is it? What if it's all leading to nothing? What do we do if we can't find the cure and can't help anybody?"
"You know, that's what I love about you, right?" Shawn says.
"What?" I ask.
"We're safe," he says. "We could live a lot of our lives here but that's not enough for you. You need to save more people. You need to find the cure. You need to make this a safe haven for people like us. You aren't satisfied being safe yourself, not if there are people out there in danger. You don't know how many people are left that need saving, the cure might be too late, but that doesn't matter to you, you still need to make it. That's what I love about you. You're completely selfless."
"I'm not, though." I say. "I'm not doing it because I can't live with being safe if other people are in danger. I'm doing this because it's my responsibility."
"How could it possibly be your responsibility? I know you're parents had a hand in starting this but that isn't your fault. You don't owe the world anything. You've suffered because of their actions just as much as anyone. None of this is your fault. Hell, none of this is their fault. It's Ambrose Riley, the bastard who knew what he was doing and what would happen to people if he did and did it anyway. You are not the bad guy in this story, Ellie. You never have been."
"But I still feel like it's my fault in some way. Every day I come out here and look out on the destruction that followed the release of the virus or infection or whatever the hell it was. I look out on the city, on the whole broken world, and I feel ashamed to be part of it at all, even just by association. And then I feel ashamed by my shame because I love my parents and I know they aren't the bad guys either. I just want to do something. I need to do something. I can't sit still because we aren't safe, not really. We won't be safe until we stop the Riley's and find the cure. We won't be safe until we undo what has been done."
"But what if it's impossible?" Shawn says. "I understand why you're at war with yourself, I really do, and I just can't stand to see you lose yourself to the guilt you don't deserve to carry. I know we'll find the cure. I don't know why but everything inside of me is telling me that we will. I don't know when it's going to happen but I need you to hold on a little longer because it's coming."
"What is?" I ask.
"Something good." Shawn says.
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because I know you." He says simply. "I know there is nothing you can't do because you won't give up until you've achieved every goal you need to achieve. You won't stop until you've done everything you need to do. I admire you for that, I love you for that, and I'll help you with it. I don't how to make the cure, I don't know how to stop the Riley's, but I'll help you anyway. We'll do it together, all of us. I just hope that you can learn to forgive yourself, even though there's nothing to forgive. You haven't done anything wrong, Ellie. I only hope that one day you'll believe it."
"It must be exhausting loving me." I finally say and he sits up. I can feel his eyes on me but I keep watching the sunset. Then, he starts laughing. It starts as a small chuckle and then builds into boisterous mirth. I finally let my eyes fall away from the skyline and stare at him in confusion.
"What's so funny?" I ask. I can feel my own laughter trying to bubble its way out of me. I try to keep my face stoic and unamused but I'm failing, I know I am.
"Loving you is exhausting," he says, calming slightly. "But I wouldn't trade a day of it for anything else in the world. It's not so much that you're exhausting to be around, I don't want you to get me wrong, but you're a living firework, you're like the sun. To stare at you is blinding in the most beautiful way. To love you is exhausting because it's nearly impossible to keep up with you. You go on and on and fight and get knocked down and come up even stronger. I don't know how you do it. Nothing can stop you, you're invincible, and I love you."
"No one is invincible." I say. The laughter I felt just under the surface is gone replaced by tears, although not tears of sadness. I don't know what I did to deserve someone like him, someone who always knows what to say and always says the exact right thing at the right time. I don't know how I deserve his poet's mind and lover's heart. I don't know why I deserve someone who believes in me so wholly and without doubt. "And why do you believe in me so much? You deserve better than me."
"How can you say that?" He asks, pulling me to him. "I believe in you because I've seen what you can do. I know you're heart better than anyone and it's like no other. You are the only person in the world that I would want to get stuck in the apocalypse with. I love you more and more every day and there is nothing that can come between us. I want you, Ellie, forever. I've known that for a long time and felt it so strongly in the woods when we got married to each other. I want you and I hope that you want me to."
"Of course I do." I tell him. "I married you for the same reasons. In my darkest days you bring light back into my life. You love with no barriers and no restraints. You're everything good in the world and not even the worst of this life has been able to change that about you. I love you because our souls were meant to find each other, you and I; we're made for each other. I spend every day trying to live up to that. There's nothing I wouldn't do for you and I know you would do the same."
"I would." He says. "I would die protecting you if I had to."
"So would I," I say. "But we married each other so we wouldn't have to be alone anymore."
"We'll never be alone again." He says and leans in to kiss me. The kiss is tender, full of all the love we've laid out before us. My nerves feel raw and exposed. I feel like we've opened our hearts to each other even more than we had before. That's why we work, because we're not afraid to talk about our love for each other. We feel it so strongly and we let it out, we don't hold back, and that's why the love grows. In marriage, you can't be afraid to tell the other person anything. In marriage, you've become an extension of each other. Shawn is me and I am Shawn just as much as we are ourselves. We've just added more to ourselves. That's why it's important to talk, really talk, about the love in the middle of everything. That's the tie. You're supposed to love the person so much you need to talk about it always; you need to tell the other person exactly how you feel when you need to most. That's why I know we'll love each other forever.
He leans back and smiles and I lean forward, kissing his nose gently. He scrunches his nose and rests his forehead against mine.
"We should go back down." He says.
"Yeah," I say. "Same time tomorrow?"
"Of course, my love." He says and stands. He reaches out his hand and I take it. He lifts me to my feet and we make our way down the slope of the roof. The sun has faded from view and shadows have overtaken the ruined city around us. This is the world we live in, for better or worse, this is what we have. I can live in this world, for now. I can make things better. It's going to happen soon. I can feel it.
The end is near, but I promise this one will be better.